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Macron underlines new Syria reality

Cracks in the coalition against Bashar Assad, if there was ever one, have been showing for years. Those supporting the beleaguered Syrian president, namely Russia and Iran, have been waiting patiently for these cracks to widen. Last week, Assad and his backers received a precious gift from the head of a country that for years was a major foe.

French President Emmanuel Macron stunned the Syrian opposition when he said he saw no legitimate successor to Assad, and France no longer considered his departure a precondition to resolving the conflict. In Macron’s view, France’s priority is fighting terrorist groups and ensuring Syria does not become a failed state.

His comments signaled a major departure from the position of the previous administration. It also underlined the growing rift between Europe and the US over the strategy, or lack of, on Syria, especially since Donald Trump took over the White House.

But in reality, US flip-flopping on Syria was a feature of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Washington’s lack of resolve and incoherent stand became evident when the defiant Assad regime crossed Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons against civilians and survived. Now with Macron’s latest statement, a key pillar in the Syrian opposition’s long-standing, non-negotiable condition appears to have crumbled.

After six bloody years that witnessed horrific carnage and mass destruction, Assad’s role in any future settlement is now less contentious. By the same token, it is the legitimacy of the opposition, riddled with infighting and divisions, which is now being questioned. Paris has pivoted to the Russian and Iranian stand over Assad, marking a more pragmatic approach to the Syrian crisis.

Macron’s shift underlines a sober reading of the geopolitical undercurrents that have boosted Assad’s strategic standing. Trump and his aides had echoed a similar position before the regime’s alleged chemical attack on Idlib in April. In the wake of that incident, Trump waged a vehement attack on Assad, followed by the US missile strike on a Syrian air base, and adopted the regime-change mantra.

But that was more of a ploy by Trump to deflect attention from his domestic woes. The US strategy, still in the works, focused on arming the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that were closing in on Raqqa, and establishing a foothold in southeast Syria close to the borders with Iraq and Jordan.

The anti-Assad coalition has been dissolving for years. The US did nothing when Russia intervened militarily in Syria in 2015 to save the regime from what looked like imminent defeat.

Osama Al-Sharif

Trump’s own red lines in and around Tanf base were ignored by the Syrian regime and its allies as they pushed their way to the borders with Iraq and cut off Daesh escape routes south of Raqqa. The change in Assad’s fortunes began late last year when his forces and Iran-backed militias captured the rebel-held parts of Aleppo, at a high civilian price, while the West watched and did nothing.

Since then, Assad’s forces have routed rebels in Homs and Damascus suburbs. Earlier this month, they moved east beyond Palmyra and into Bu Kamal and Deir Ezzor, and south, hoping to capture Daraa city and reach the borders with Jordan.

While the US and Russia negotiated ways to implement a plan to create four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, Moscow facilitated the regime’s expansion. Russia’s position is clear: The regime is liberating areas from the rebels and reclaiming Syrian sovereignty over national territory.

The anti-Assad coalition has been dissolving for years. The US did nothing when Russia intervened militarily in Syria in 2015 to save the regime from what looked like imminent defeat.

Washington’s support for Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels has waned, while the Syrian opposition has broken into three main factions, with Moscow and Cairo each adopting opposing groups.

In the meantime, the Geneva rounds produced nothing while Turkey, Iran and Russia gave momentum to the Astana technical talks, which aimed to delineate areas of influence on the ground. The new set-up would satisfy the immediate interests of regional players and could provide an interim arrangement in the wake of the defeat of Daesh in both Iraq and Syria.

The proposed Daraa safe zone could provide a prototype of what Syria will look like in the coming months. With Russian, US, Turkish, regime and Iran-backed militias, as well as the main rebel area in Idlib and Kurdish forces in northeast Syria — each entrenched in key locations — these pockets of influence will redraw the map of Syria.

In the absence of a viable political process, Assad will remain in control of Syria’s heartland and main urban centers. How will these players agree on the means to observe the peace in these areas of influence and ensure de-confliction? Is it de facto partition? No one will say so outright, but with Israel targeting regime forces in the Golan recently, it appears that even Tel Aviv wants to draw its own area of influence.

In the ominous words of former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford: “Assad won, or he thinks so. Maybe in 10 years, he will retake the entire country.”

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.